“The Most Amazing Link to Our History”: The Farmers Reclaiming Their Heritage Bit by Bit | meal

The walls of Bonnetta Adeeb’s basement in suburban Washington DC are lined with record covers, African art, musical instruments and – more recently – shelves with hundreds of crates of carefully labeled seeds.

With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Adeeb and her students looked to Steam Onward – a non-profit organization that engages underserved young people in gardening projects – for ways to support their communities.

At the same time, further north in Philadelphia, the Experimental Farm Network invited growers, including Adeeb, to Zoom calls. “That was clear early on [Covid] would be massively disruptive to our way of life and that people would need support,” said Nate Kleinman, co-founder and co-director of the network.

The resulting organization, the Cooperative Gardens Commission, decided to focus on seeds — and make sure Americans had access to them. By April, Philadelphia volunteers were shipping seeds donated by seed companies to smaller distributors across the country — including the one at Adeeb’s house. Her basement has been turned into a seed hub. Her students began shipping the seeds and even planting gardens in their elderly neighbors’ backyards.

They received about 140 seed varieties, Adeeb said, but she quickly noticed a problem. They “were not necessarily foods that our Bipoc communities craved. They’re not things that people eat,” she said. There were no collards, okra or bok choy.

So Adeeb and her students began talking to their neighbors, and then to farmers across the country, to find out what seeds were culturally important to them — and where to buy them.

Close-up of a hand holding flowers in the grass
Adeeb examines the flowers in her garden at Taymen Field in Upper Malboro, Maryland. Photo: Dee Dwyer/The Guardian

The resulting alliance of Bipoc growers became the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance. Ujamaa means ‘cooperative economy’ in Swahili and takes its name from one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, a community that celebrates the winter holidays.

The alliance not only works to provide the neighbors with the seeds they want, but also seeks out old or rare seed varieties to plant.

“Ujamaa’s mission is to restore and reclaim our culture or heritage, preserve it and ensure it is available for future generations,” Adeeb said. She wants to support color producers to have more influence over their food and develop more resilience for future crises.

In February, Ujamaa opened its catalog to orders. With collections dedicated to Caribbean, Native American, Latin American, Asian, African and Southern seeds, the Alliance hopes to raise funds to continue its free seed distribution efforts and support growers.

“The most amazing connection to our history”

Growing up, Adeeb heard many stories about food — “my family has been farming in this country since 1710” — but the one she heard most often was about a watermelon that grew so successfully that her great-granduncle’s daughters didn’t have to leave home to work.

Most black girls had to work as maids after slavery, Adeeb said, but “the number one most dangerous place for a black child was in a white family’s home.” Because their parents were successful farmers, Adeeb said, “the girls were not abused.”

She asked her 90-year-old cousins ​​to describe the watermelon — the color of its rind, the taste of its fruit — and tracked it down. When she finally received a packet of seeds, she said, “I cried, I cried, I cried, I’m still crying that we found this amazing connection to our story.”

Four women are talking in a field
Adeeb in her garden with farmers (from left) Kathy Anderson, Karen Bowlding and Lyfe Love at Taymen Field. Photo: Dee Dwyer/The Guardian
A farmhouse in the distance under a blue sky
Adeeb’s Garden in Maryland. Photo: Dee Dwyer/The Guardian

Adeeb, a retired teacher whose work has always focused on food, wants to raise awareness of the importance of these cultural and historical connections to food.

After founding Ujamaa, she invited Kleinman of the Experimental Farm Network to join its board and, as she requires everyone, asked him to consider which seeds were culturally important to his ancestors.

Kleinman knew right away: grains. “I’m Eastern European, mainly Jewish, and I know that one of my great-grandfathers was a miller and baker in Romania.”

At the time there were laws against Jews who owned farmland, he said, so “it was grain, it was the milling and baking that gave him and his siblings and his parents the resources they needed to cross the ocean.” and my family a new life – and save us from the holocaust that came only a few decades later”.

A woman stands in front of an open SUV and holds a potted herb in her hand
Bonnetta Adeeb holding the herb borage. Photo: Dee Dwyer/The Guardian
A woman checks a red tractor
Adeeb checks her tractor. Photo: Dee Dwyer/The Guardian

Hoping to source more “culturally relevant seeds” of its own, the Cooperative Gardens Commission began buying seeds requested by communities, rather than relying solely on donations from seed companies.

“Eating is not a privilege; it is a right

Within a year of forming the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, Adeeb’s students had planted 50 gardens in their communities.

The alliance has partnered with farmers across the United States—from Oregon and Washington to Kentucky and North Carolina. Some of them grow seeds that are sent directly from Adeeb or her students, while others have been growing plants for years, which they now contribute to Ujamaa’s seed library.

Sonya Harris plants Ujamaa’s seeds at the Bullock Garden Project in New Jersey, which supplies school gardens with vegetables. The project is being carried out primarily in low-income neighborhoods where communities turned to gardens for food in the early days of the pandemic. Harris, who met Adeeb at the Cooperative Gardens Commission’s first meetings, wants to help people develop their food sovereignty by growing their own food from seeds. “Eating is not a privilege; it’s a right,” she said.

Close up of a yellow flower
A buttercup in Adeeb’s garden. Photo: Dee Dwyer/The Guardian

Harris is also keen on introducing children to plants with difficult histories. “I’m very committed to cotton recovery,” she said. She wants to show children the reality of the plant – how potent the harvest was that children their age should harvest – but also how their ancestors evolved the plant.

“When we talk about the plants that brought in the money for the slaveholders, I have a feeling that this seed belongs to the African people and the indigenous people. The people whose land it was stolen from and the stolen who had to take care of it,” Harris says. “Why is there this shame in growing a plant we developed?”

By teaching black children how to grow cotton, Harris says she wants to inspire the crop’s future growers – who might find a way to help it weather drought or long winters, whatever the climate crisis brings.

Tomia MacQueen, another grower in the Ujamaa Alliance and founder of Wildflower Farm in Pennington, New Jersey, is using the network to help her find the kohlrabi her grandmother grew up with.

MacQueen grew up in Detroit and thinks a lot about access to healthy and culturally appropriate food in cities. She first met Adeeb at a meeting of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, where Adeeb spoke about seed braiding – the way West African women braided seeds into their hair and that of their children before bringing them to America as enslaved people so they would have foods they were familiar with — like okra, peas, and vegetables.

She wants more people in low-income areas to have choices about what they eat, especially the ability to eat the foods that kept their ancestors healthy. “For me, a big part of Ujamaa is about self-sufficiency,” says MacQueen. “If you can’t support yourself, are you really free?”

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